Opinion | Singapore’s bicentenary and the ‘what if’ scenarios

Singapore's ArtScience Museum projected with colorful lights during preview of ‘i Light Singapore festival’. (AFP)
Singapore's ArtScience Museum projected with colorful lights during preview of ‘i Light Singapore festival’. (AFP)

The city-state debates the role of founder Raffles but what about the Operation Cold Store arrests?

Chinese Singaporeans and their friends gathered around dinner tables exchanging hong bao packets with gifts for the young, and wished each other gong xi fa cai, chiding the unattached among them to get married as they ushered in the lunar new year this week. But this year is special in Singapore, for the government celebrated the founding of modern Singapore 200 years ago on 6 February.

The celebration is unusual as Singapore is honouring the year, and not the man, Stamford Raffles, who was a colonialist and spent relatively little time in Singapore but whose name remains associated with landmarks and institutions across the republic. From the Raffles Steps on the mouth of the Singapore River to the spectacular downtown business district of Raffles Place; the renowned hotel to elite educational institutions; you find the name everywhere. For a long time, the business class of the national carrier, Singapore Airlines, was called Raffles Class.

Most societies change names and raze statues of colonialists upon getting independence, but modern Singapore chose to honour Raffles as the nation’s icon, at least partly because picking a Chinese, Malay, or Indian hero may have divided the ethnically diverse country at its founding in the early 1960s. Singapore traces its independence to 1965 when Malaysia had unceremoniously ejected Singapore from the federation. It was a dangerous time in South-East Asia—the Vietnam War raged and Indonesia’s Suharto was busy fighting with everyone, during the period of Konfrontasi. Raffles was at least neutral, an outsider who gave meaning to the idea of the nation.

Raffles worked for the East India Company and came to Malaya in his early 20s, spending his formative time in Java (even writing the island’s history) where he tamed local princes. Once the control of the island reverted to the Dutch under the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814, Raffles returned to England in some disgrace, with questions over his financial prudence.

He would return as governor of Bencoolen in 1818, having cleared his name. The Straits of Malacca formed the crucial waterway linking the South China Sea, Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal, and Raffles set his sights on the Riau Archipelago, just south of the Malay Peninsula. A nondescript island stood there, and that was enough for Raffles to move in, as this was the age of terra nullius, the assumption that it was unclaimed land, where the white colonialists could settle and make the place their own. That there was a Malay fishing village, and that Sang Nila Utama, a Palembang prince, had ruled there in the 13th century was detail.

With cunning and charm, Raffles convinced a local prince to sign a treaty with the British anointing him the sultan, and the foundation stone was laid for the thriving entrepôt that Singapore has become today. Singaporeans are taught about the farsightedness of Raffles. Alternative readings now suggest that it was William Farquhar, Raffles’s contemporary, who deserves his place in the sun, as Nadia Wright shows in her book, William Farquhar And Singapore: Stepping Out From Raffles’ Shadow. Farquhar had earlier administered Malacca competently, and his presence reassured Malaccan traders to shift operations to Singapore after Raffles signed the treaty with the Johor prince. Farquhar adroitly managed the colony even with the limited resources Raffles gave him.

Singapore is marking the anniversary but recalling an older past. Scrutinizing the pre-British past of Singapore has advantages—it is essential to debunk the idea that Malays are indolent. That was a caricature the British perpetuated (to facilitate greater migration of Chinese who came to work in the mines and Indians who were brought for the plantations), a point academic Syed Hussein Alatas made eloquently in his groundbreaking work, The Myth Of The Lazy Native (1977). But what else might digging uncover?

For over a year the government in Singapore has appeared determined to characterize the research of historian Thum Ping Tjin as unsound or politically motivated. Thum has been arguing that in the early 1960s the Singapore government used British intelligence reports to discredit left-leaning opponents, terming them Communists destabilizing the government. More than 100 people were arrested during Operation Cold Store in February 1963. Had the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) lost that political battle to the left, Singapore would not be what it is today, so runs the government’s assertion.

Thum doesn’t necessarily explore how history would have turned out; rather, he has written about how British intelligence reports prepared during the colonial period enabled a narrative that he says mischaracterized PAP’s opponents, which helped the government consolidate power. PAP does not like criticism and tends to respond robustly, as it is now doing with Thum’s critique.

A state-commissioned piece of art creates the optical illusion of the statue of Raffles disappearing, urging Singaporeans to think what kind of a republic would it be without Raffles. But can Singapore allow one debate—over Raffles—but not another—over 1963? “What-if" scenarios can raise all kinds of questions, not always comfortable.


Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Read Salil’s previous  Mint columns

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